The man who introduced Chennai to waste segregation, much before anyone else

Long before Indian cities began to talk about segregation and composting, Chennai as a city had successfully experimented with it, thanks to the unique Exnora initiative. But how did the movement wane? Akshatha M chats with M B Nirmal, the visionary founder of Exnora.

In the late 1980s, when the term “waste management” had not gained much currency in Indian cities, a banker-turned-environmental activist M B Nirmal started a cleanliness movement in Chennai. Called the Civic Exnora, it was considered as one of the largest environmental and civic movements having happened in the urban India.

Civic Exnora was founded in 1989 by M B Nirmal who was then an officer with the Indian Overseas Bank. Exnora was started in an attempt to create awareness about cleanliness. Back in the 90s, the organisation played a major role in motivating and involving neighbourhoods in systematic waste management and had proposed segregation and composting organic and wet waste.

As the movement became popular, residents in several streets across Chennai took ownership of their streets and paid a monthly sum to get their garbage cleared. Within five years of introducing the movement, the number of Civic Exnora units shot up to 3,000.

The Street Exnora programme included introduction of mobile dustbins which were cleared by individuals pedalling tricycle carts in the mornings.

In an interview published in India Today in 1996, M B Nirmal had said Exnora collects 20 per cent of the 3,000 tons of garbage that Chennai generates every day. But, strangely by 2000 this systematic waste collection had been shaken, thanks to the Chennai city corporation that introduced the contract system. The waste collection method of the contractor stood in contrast to what Exnora had been doing till then. That is when things started falling apart.

Cut to 2017. M B Nirmal is in his 70s now and is trying to revive the Exnora movement. This time he is sharing ideas and concepts with individuals and houses, and he calls his programme Home Exnora.

In an interview with Citizen Matters, M B Nirmal whose spirit has not been dulled by age, especially when it comes to environmental issues, talks about why neighbourhood management of waste has not been successful in Chennai and his plans for the future.

  • You were one of the pioneers of urban waste management in India. From what began as a successful waste management model, the Exnora initiative witnessed a gradual decline with neighbourhoods in Chennai giving up waste segregation and management. What led to this?

We had around 3,000 Exnora units in the late 90s. Right now it has decreased to 1,100 units where the neighbourhoods continue with micro waste management. I do not blame the citizens for this situation, but I believe the government is responsible for this. The moment the contractors were put in charge of waste collection and disposal, things took a different turn. These contractors began mixing the segregated waste, and people found no reason to put in efforts to segregate it.

  • Do you think middle-class awakening and voluntarism, which have played a major role in neighbourhood waste management over the years, have died down?

I think people lack motivation. They are not aware of how and why proper waste management would help them and the environment. They will not pay attention if we talk about global warming, rather what needs to be told is how dumping of waste affects their life and why waste management makes their life better. There is a need to explain to them how waste segregation can be productive and the ways in which they are benefitted.

  • In hindsight, what do you think of the people’s involvement in environmental initiatives and waste management? What have you learnt in the process of engaging citizens?

When the Exnora movement started in Chennai, it was the first of its kind. Back then, we thought of two things. One, why depend on the government? And two, when people generate garbage they have the moral responsibility to dispose of it responsibly. What we did in 1989 was right at that point. We were able to reach as many people as possible.

But with changing times, we need to approach the issue of waste management differently. Street management of waste is no more a solution. Waste has to be managed at source. The moment you shift it, the problem gets multiplied. Waste should be managed from home i.e at the micro-level, not from the street. There is a need to push people to bring out minimum waste from their houses.

But it’s not possible through negative motivation, by warning or penalising them. They should be positively motivated.

  • Can you tell readers more about the new approach?

We are replacing the concept of Street Exnora with that of Home Exnora. Home Exnora is offering solutions to composting and waste segregation problems at the home level. This is based on the principle that ‘cooling-the-globe’ action starts at home.

We have developed a website, that is a one-stop guide for people interested in solid waste management, composting, model homes, pollution free homes and green homes.

This web platform provides ideas, concepts and solutions to waste management at home, so that minimum waste goes out of home. We are also doing the “In My Backyard” project to promote people to compost waste in their house backyards. The idea is to promote home composting and adoption of new habits to transform the home – to make it green, environment friendly, hygienic and pollution free.

We will launch the project in various cities across the country in November. Banks will be involved to disseminate information and create awareness among citizens.


  1. Vasanthkumar Mysoremath says:

    With best wishes to Nirmal’s Home Exnora, I have tried and tried all methods to coax citizens to cooperate with solid waste management by segregating their waste into wet and dry waste, in vain. Mysore City Corporation commissioner also issued press statements warning citizens that they will be liable to pay fines if they are found dumping waste on roads or street corners but to no avail. I have started another campaign – I am advising Poura Karmikas to first warn the ladies of the houses to segregate the waste and hand over only wet waste to them and the dry waste on thursdays of the week. If they are found mixing the waste while handing over, to pour the contents in front of the household, remove dry waste and hand over the same back to the so called ‘lady of the house’ and collect only wet waste for further disposal. This way, we will be creating a ‘shame…shame…’ in front of other house owners and also to clean the dirt created due to dumping of waste from the container that was handed over to the PKs. As Member of JnNURM Committee on Solid Waste and Sanitation Management of Mysore City Corporation, I have also suggested in my presentation management of various types of wastes generated by urbanites.

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